The uprising in Tunisia that began in December 2010 has scored one concrete victory thus far: the removal of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The autocrat, who had ruled the country for twenty-three years, could not survive the combined push of the unrelenting demonstrations and the decision by General Rachid Ammar, the head of the Army, not to participate in the suppression of the demonstrations.
As the new national unity government struggles to gain support, political parties, civil society, and the military will play a critical role in determining whether the country can transition to a more democratic state or will fall back into its old structure.
A True Unity Government?
Despite the president’s ouster, the old regime is still largely in place—other members of his political entourage took over. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he would act as president, only to be quickly replaced by Speaker of Parliament Fouad Mebazaa, with Ghannouchi continuing as prime minister. In that capacity, Ghannouchi formed a government of national unity on January 17, including three members of opposition parties, four trade unionists, and some independents. The crucial ministries—defense, foreign affairs, and finance—remain in the hands of holdovers from the previous government. The minister of interior was hastily replaced, but with another member of the regime. Ghannouchi also announced that elections would be held in six months. The two-month period called for by the constitution was deemed—correctly—to be too short a time for parties to organize under the current circumstances.
The new national unity government has failed to gain support from the protesters, who continue to demand the resignation of members of the old regime. Nor did it achieve internal cohesion. One of the three opposition party representatives resigned almost immediately and so did the four trade unionists. And one of the remaining opposition party members, Najib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party, has come close to admitting in interviews that he was essentially outmaneuvered by the members of the old regime into an insignificant ministry that will give little voice to the opposition.
Lack of Leadership
The national unity government is at present a motley combination of holdovers from the previous government and independent personalities without a political organization to back them. In fact, there is no one in the government who can really claim to represent the protesters who brought down Ben Ali. Strikingly, the protest has not catapulted new leaders on to the political scene so far. Not only did the protests start spontaneously following a series of local incidents that snowballed into a national uprising, but it remains decentralized and leaderless. The Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), the old, government-affiliated trade union, has been trying to assert its leadership, calling for a general strike to demand the formation of a new interim government. Despite the UGTT attempts, the protest remained largely leaderless.
Given the absence of new leadership emerging from the ranks of protesters, the future of the so-called Jasmine Revolution depends on the organizations that already exist—including the old political parties, the labor unions, and the military. The situation is not promising. New political parties will undoubtedly organize as the country moves toward elections but, at least for the time being, the political landscape of Tunisia is sparsely populated by weak organizations.
Tunisia remained a single-party state until 1981, when President Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia from 1957 to 1987, legalized the formation of opposition parties. However, few were formed until after his forced retirement.
Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). In 1988, the Neo-Destour Party that had ruled Tunisia since independence in 1956 changed its name to the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Although President Bourguiba authorized the formation of opposition parties as far back as 1981, the RCD never faced real competition. In fact, the opposition got so few votes—all opposition parties received a combined 3 percent of the vote in 1994—that it undermined any pretense of democracy and became an embarrassment for the regime. In 2002, the government introduced a constitutional amendment setting aside 20 percent of the parliamentary seats for the opposition. This ensured the opposition would be represented without forcing the government to allow truly competitive elections that might challenge the RCD’s rule.
In the 2009 parliamentary elections, the RCD won all 161 seats allocated in the 25 multi-member constituencies. As stipulated in the constitution, the remaining 53 seats were distributed among opposition parties proportionately to the number of votes each of them received.
Given the RCD’s domination of the political scene, its break-up is thus a condition for the development of a democratic system in Tunisia. Protestors are demanding the disbanding of the party. Seeing the writing on the wall, some prominent politicians who have built their political careers inside the RCD are abandoning the party. On January 19, President Mebazaa and Prime Minister Ghannouchi cut their ties with the party and the next day all other cabinet members with an RCD affiliation followed. The party’s central committee was also disbanded, suggesting that the party itself may soon collapse and either reconstitute itself under a new name or, more likely, fragment into a number of new parties.
Opposition Parties Legal Under the Ben Ali Regime
Many of the legally recognized parties were considered to have ties to the RCD, even if they competed against it in elections. The parties considered to be more independent fared poorly in the elections.
Movement of Socialist Democrats (MSD) was one of the first opposition parties to be formed, back in 1983, and is led by Ismail Boulhaya. In past elections, it has received the largest number of votes among opposition parties. After the 2009 parliamentary elections, it was allocated sixteen of the seats reserved for the opposition.
Popular Unity Party (PUP), led by Mohammed Bouchiha, also was officially registered in 1983. The PUP was formed by dissidents from the exiled Movement of Popular Unity, a party with a radical socialist orientation that advocated a centrally planned economy. The party split when the exiled leadership opposed the formation of a legal organization inside Tunisia. It was allocated twelve of the seats reserved for the opposition in the 2009 elections.
Social Liberal Party (PSL) is considered liberal in orientation and close to the RCD. Formed in 1988 and led by Mondher Thabet, it received eight seats in 2009.
Green Part for Progress (PVP), formed in 2006, is the newest of the opposition parties and is led by Mongi Khamassi. It has six seats in parliament.
In addition, there are some legal parties without parliamentary representation, including the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) and the Liberal Social Democratic Party (PSDL).
Opposition Parties Invited to Join the National Unity Government
Of the three opposition parties whose representatives were invited to join the national unity government on January 17, two are not currently represented in parliament—the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberty (FDTL). The third party, Ettajdid, has only two seats in parliament.
Ettajdid (Renewal) was formed in 1993 and is led by Ahmed Ibrahim. Its distant origin is in the Tunisian Communist Party, which was first formed in 1920 as a branch of the French Communist Party. It has long abandoned the communist orientation and, like many former communist-oriented parties, now casts itself as a champion of democracy. It is considered to be a genuine opposition party without close ties to the RCD, but only received enough votes to be allocated two seats in parliament in 2009. Ibrahim was appointed minister of higher education in the new government of national unity on January 17.
Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), led by Najib Chebbi, was formed in 1988. It boycotted the 2009 elections and therefore has no seats in parliament. Nevertheless, the party was given a ministerial post in the national unity government, with Chebbi becoming minister for local and regional development.
Democratic Forum for Work and Liberty (FDTL), was formed in WHEN. It is led by Mustapha Ben Jafaar, who was appointed health minister in the new government, but withdrew the next day in protest of the continued domination of holdovers from the old regime.
Parties Unbanned on January 20, 2011
Hizb Al-Nahda (Renaissance) is led by Rachid Ghannouchi, who is not related to the current prime minister. An Islamist party related to the Muslim Brotherhood, it was earlier known as Islamic Action, then Movement of the Islamic Tendency, and became al-Nahda in 1989. Like all Islamist parties derived from the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization underwent a period of ideological transformation in the 1980s, accepting the idea of political participation in a pluralist system and advocating democracy. The party sought to take part in the 1989 elections but was barred from participating. Its members ran instead as independents, receiving around 15 percent of the total vote according to Tunisian government figures. This put the party far ahead of any other opposition organization and, in response, the government banned it in 1991. Rachid Ghannouchi has been in exile ever since. The ban was lifted by the national unity government on January 20. It is unclear yet whether al-Nahda still has a viable network in the country or how long it will take it to reconstruct one. Nevertheless, the party is likely to be an important—although divisive—player.
Congress for the Republic, led by Moncef Marzouki, was formed in Tunisia in 2001 by a small group of people with a liberal agenda. The group was banned the following year and has survived as a movement in exile since then. It likely does not have a significant presence on the ground in Tunisia currently.
The Coming Flood of Political Parties
Transitional elections always stimulate the growth of a large number of political parties and Tunisia will be no exception. Most new parties will simply be cliques gathered around ambitious individuals and will remain largely irrelevant.
The parties that will have to be watched fall into three categories. First, old opposition parties—the question in their case is whether they will have the capacity to organize. Second, the Islamist movement Hizb al-Nahda, which has a track record of support in elections. And third, new parties that emerge from the fragmentation of the RCD.
The lessons that can be extracted from other transitional elections suggest that parties emerging from the fragmentation of a ruling party tend to be the most effective because they include experienced politicians who know how to run an organization. Such parties will undoubtedly give themselves a liberal façade and are likely also to be well accepted by countries and organizations that seek to promote democracy in Tunisia but fear Islamists.
Civil Society Organizations
Civil society organizations were severely restricted under the Ben Ali regime or were controlled by the state. This was the case with the UGTT, led by Abdessalam Jerad. Despite its affiliation with the former regime, the UGTT is now trying to establish itself as a player in the reform process. On January 18, just after the formation of the government of national unity, the UGTT issued a strongly worded declaration, seeking to carve out a position of leadership in a movement it had no part in organizing. It rejected the national unity government that had just been created, called for the formation of more representative structures to supervise the reform, demanded that the government revise the rules on freedom of association and the right to demonstrate, and withdrew its representatives appointed to the government of national unity. A week later, it announced its intention to organize a general strike.
Despite this new activism, the UGTT is controlled by the same leaders who cooperated with the RCD. Although it has now aligned itself with the demands of the protesters, the old leadership may prove ultimately unacceptable to the protesters.
It is a foregone conclusion that small, new nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will start forming in large numbers in the coming months, particularly as the United States and European countries move in to assist the process of change—and, in the process, restore their credibility as supporters of democracy after years of an uncritical stance toward Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule. The experience of other countries that attempted transitions from authoritarianism suggest that three types of organizations will appear quickly: human rights organizations, women’s rights organizations, and election monitoring groups. The latter are the only ones likely to have an impact in the short run by monitoring the integrity of the preparation of elections, the voting itself, and the ballot counting.
The Tunisian military, under the leadership of General Rachid Ammar, already played a role in the transition by refusing to participate in the suppression of the demonstrations, leaving that task to the police and special units that reported directly to Ben Ali instead. As the national unity government fails to gain support and the unrest continues—new waves of protesters are already pouring into the cities and camping in front of government buildings, demanding the ouster of the holdovers from the old regime—the military may emerge as a pivotal factor again. General Ammar has gained a degree of trust and popularity, according to people who monitor social media in Tunisia. Furthermore, there is a track record in the Arab world of popular uprisings leading to military interventions—this happened several times in Sudan and in Algeria in the late 1980s.
The Tunisian military is small, with 36,000 men who make up the army, navy, and air force, and a budget amounting to only 1.3 percent of GDP (in comparison, the military is about 4 percent of GDP in the United States and 10 percent in Saudi Arabia). It has never played a role in politics, either because it is truly professional or because the country has been extremely stable since independence, first under President Bourguiba until 1987 and under President Ben Ali since then. This is the first time an opportunity for military intervention has arisen, so it is impossible to extrapolate from the past to predict how it will respond.
If unrest were to continue creating chaos and the national unity government remains divided and ineffectual, General Ammar would be in a good position to announce that the military must intervene to save the nation. Such an intervention might be well received as long as the military made it clear that intervention is temporary, put civilians into government immediately, and scheduled elections.
Even if the military were to intervene, the final outcome would ultimately depend on what civilian politicians do and the capacity of various parties to organize and gain support. There would be two significant differences, however: General Ammar would be well placed to run for office; and the military could establish itself as the guardian of stability or even democracy, with far-reaching implications.